Dogs are such an important part of our life – but what if you depended on them for more than just companionship?
Our canine pals are massively important in our lives! You don’t have to train, or walk dogs to know that much. But, what if they were the key that unlocked the door to your freedom. What if they were the only thing that could get you out of a desperate situation?
We all know my feelings on the importance of dogs in our lives (see my post on my history of mental health and how Indie has helped so much!) – but Assistance dogs go that bit further than our pets, they’re wonderful creatures – and they’re far better than mankind deserve at times (at least in my, humble opinion. An Asisstance dog can literally be a person’s freedom, their ability to live independently… which I think we can all agree is simply marvellous.
So, why am I talking about Assistance dogs? Because it’s International Assistance Dog Week!
Now, any dog owner knows about assistance dogs, the most known ones of these are Guide Dogs – but they’re not the only assistance dogs that help out mankind. There are assistance dogs associated with helping with mental health, hearing dogs and those that help with physical issues.
So, in honour of International Assistance Dog Week, we’re lucky enough to be talking to Rachel Rodgers! She is the head of Dog Assistance in Disability (Dog A.I.D)! Before this position, she spent 3 years as an area manager and head coach at Dogs Trust Dog School where she trained 90 dogs a week! Pretty impressive, huh? That’s a lot of dogs!!
Rachel is going to tell us a little bit about the type of assistance dogs that Dog A.I.D focus on.
Hey Rachel! Thanks so much for joining us for this interview, can you tell us who you are and who Dog A.I.D are?
Hi Alex, I’m Rachel Rodgers, I started as Head of Training and Development for Assistance Dog charity Dog Assistance in Disability (Dog A.I.D.) during lockdown in March!
We are a registered charity who train people’s own pet dogs to become their qualified assistance dogs all across the UK. Our dogs are full assistance dogs as we are accredited with the Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK) and Assistance Dogs International (ADI). This means our dogs have the same public access rights as guide dogs and hearing dogs.
Gosh, you started during lockdown? How did you find that, it must have been quite intimidating!
It certainly wasn’t what I expected! Collecting a laptop out of the boot of a car in an empty starbucks car park isn’t the most normal start to a job! However, everyone has been so welcoming and helpful. I was based from home when I wasn’t on the road in my last job so I’m used to managing my own time and my office was all set up ready to go. Most importantly I was already used to Zoom which has certainly helped!
Ahaha, I think we’ve all become Zoom-fanatics over lockdown, huh? Still that sounds a little daunting!
What brought you to Dog A.I.D ?
I met some representatives of Dog A.I.D. at the 2019 Animal Star Awards where I was a judge (having won animal trainer/behaviourist of the year in 2018).
I couldn’t believe that the charity was so local to me – just down the road in Shrewsbury but yet I didn’t know much about them.
Clearly the stars aligned as just a few months later they advertised for the position of Head of Training and Development and the opportunity to use my skills in a new way, training assistance dogs plus the opportunity to not be away from home for 4 nights a week was too good to turn down! I haven’t looked back since!
I’m also loving still being able to run my own business Nose To Trail on the side as I can now take on behaviour cases in the evenings and weekends, and am one step closer to getting my CCAB (Certified clinical Animal Behaviourist) accreditation that I have been working on for years!
Congrats on the Animal Trainer/behaviourist of the year and the CCAB! You must be really proud. The night at the Animal Star Awards sounds like it was meant to be!
Have you managed to get your teeth into a project yet with all that’s going on?
I’ve just got my first Dog A.I.D. client and dog to work with – a beautiful young springer pup called Arthur. He has his own instagram! Why not check it out? Arthur’s Instagram!
His dad, Clive Smith (who is a motivational speaker – sharing his past hardships to help others overcome adversity) is an army veteran who lost both legs from an IED in October 2010 when on a tour of Afghanistan.
Arthur (his dog) is actually a little too young to start his training yet, as he only came home last week! So he is having some quality puppy time before we start training him.
Artur & Clive sound like quite the pair! Are they typical people that Dog A.I.D work with?
We work with people over the age of 16 who have physical disabilities. Sadly, we are unable to help with emotional or mental health support dogs. For example our clients may have Multiple Sclerosis, Spinal injuries, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS – this is where the connective tissue in the joints is incredibly fragile and sufferers of this syndrome can be prone to dislocated joints amongst other things) and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS – in this, the autonomic nervous system does not work properly, and people suffering from this can be lightheaded, prone to fainting and susceptible to memory and concentration issues ).
If people are unsure if they would be eligible for training their dog with Dog A.I.D. they can read our guidance criteria.
Oh wow, that sounds like these people have some tough scenarios to cope with. How do you get the dogs to help?
It can be for things such as; picking up dropped items, loading the washing machine, fetching medicine or help, opening and closing doors. A good idea of the tasks our dogs do can be seen in our brand new Tik Tok video!
Those are some impressive dogs. I know you guys focus on the owner’s pet dogs, how do these people find you?
Potential clients visit the dog A.I.D website to register their interest for training. We usually have information available on our website for where we have volunteer Dog A.I.D. trainers available. However if there isn’t a trainer available then the potential client would be able to ask a local experienced and qualified dog trainer if they would like to join the scheme. These trainers are professional dog trainers, usually members of organisations like the IMDT or APDT. This is so we know the trainers use ethical, modern training techniques to shape the dog’s behaviour.
Clients are then paired with a volunteer trainer who lives within a 30 minute radius of them. The trainer and client then work together through the 3 levels of training. Level 1 is basic obedience training, level 2 is where the dogs start to do their assistance dog work or task work.
At the end of each stage the client and their dog have an assessment. The entire process can take anywhere between 6 months to 2 years depending on the level of training the dog has when they start the scheme.
That must take a lot of work and dedication – and must be really rewarding when your dogs pass.
So, Rachel, you must have some stories from working in this business, whilst I’m sure they’re all marvellous tales, is there any that stand out for you?
All of the Dog A.I.D. dogs are incredible! However one that never ceases to amaze me is the fantastic little dog Willow (who also has her own facebook page, by the way!).
Willow is a 4 year old Tibetan terrier x bichon. She really does show that small dogs can also be lifesavers!
Willow’s Mum, Ruth, is an incredible young lady who despite having been in the hospital for the last few weeks has taken the time to join us to share her story about Willow, (give it a watch below!).
Ruth told us that, even before Willow was a fully qualified assistance dog, Willow had saved her life!
Ruth was cooking dinner and managed to spill boiling hot water all over her legs. Due to her medical condition, she couldn’t move away or get help. So in came Willow to the rescue. Even though her training was still in progress and Ruth was unconscious and unable to give her any form of cue, Willow came to the rescue!
Willow managed to find Ruth’s phone and brought it to her so that Ruth could call an ambulance. She then snuggled up and kept Ruth company until help arrived.
All before she was even a qualified assistance dog. Just incredible.
That is definitely incredible! Clever little Willow! It’s wonderful to hear how man’s best friend is still finding a way to help us.
What sort of dogs do Dog A.I.D tend to work with?
Dog A.I.D. have every breed of dog going – border terrier, schnauzers, Alaskan klee klai, chihuhuas! To your more familiar assistance dogs of Labradors and retrievers!
What’s the important difference when training a pet as opposed to say, guide dogs, where they’re purposefully trained from a puppy?
Owner trained assistance dogs have the added benefit of having an already established bond with their owner.
When you get an assistance dog from an organisation who rear and train it for you – that bond isn’t always there, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally.
Our dogs already know their owner. They know how they behave, their body language, their routine as they have already lived alongside them for up to 5 years (training can start between the ages of 6 month – 5 years).
Also as our clients train the dogs themselves, they gain skills that they wouldn’t if we just gave them an already trained up dog. This helps as over time sometimes the client’s needs change and as they already have the skills for shaping they can then train their dog for new task work a lot of the time without needing any additional help and support from a trainer.
What about the dog’s welfare – I know guide dogs retire at a certain age, is it the same when the dog is the owner’s pet?
As we have so many different breeds and sizes of dogs that do so many different roles it wouldn’t really work to have a set age for Dog A.I.D. dogs to retire. After qualification, our dogs have an annual reassessment with one of our assessors to ensure they are still meeting all the necessary criteria and the owner’s vets have to submit a health check and report to confirm the dog is still fit, able and willing to be an assistance dog. If the dog no longer wants to work – it wouldn’t be expected too!
Instead, we educate our owners on when they may need to make that decision. We also provide information on selecting or training up successor dogs.
That must be very useful for their owners. I can only imagine how valuable these dogs are in helping their owners and making their lives easier.
Speaking of helping, is there a way we can help you guys? What issues are you facing at the moment?
At the moment the biggest issue we face is funding. All of our funds come from fundraising events and due to Covid-19 these have stopped. Normally summer is spent doing demonstrations at local village fairs and dog shows which brings in support but these events haven’t been able to go ahead. We need funding to be able to offer our services to more clients and cover a wider area of the UK.
Some of our clients live in areas we don’t have any volunteer trainers at present so we try to run residential weeks where these clients can come and receive training in blocks throughout the year. Although these are on hold at present due to Covid, we would love to have the funds to run more of these and offer our training to more people in the future.
We were fortunate enough to be able to adapt our delivery to online training so we have been able to support our clients to continue to make progress in training their dogs to become assistance dogs throughout lockdown and we hope to return to face to face training very soon.
If people can’t do that, I’m pretty sure they would love to hear more about your good doings, where can they do that?
Thank you so much for your time, Rachel! I’m delighted to have been able to speak to you about this, you’re clearly in love with your job! Thank you for everything you and everyone at Dog A.I.D does!
What do you think?
So, we’ve learnt a lot about how even the littlest dog can do to help their Mums and Dads, and how important the work of these wonderful doggy charities are! And that Assistance dogs are way more than only guide dogs, that they can be so very important in the lives of all sorts of people for everyday tasks.
I hope you guys found it helpful and insightful! And maybe, if you have a couple of quid spare you can send it their way? Give them a follow on social media, and share this post. Let’s get these guys a little more support, huh?